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By Adam Dickter
March 26, 1999

Two groups of rabbis were scheduled to converge on police headquarters this week, and if all goes as planned, one group will be arrested while the other is escorted inside to meet with the commissioner.

The events point out the divergent paths taken by segments of the Jewish community as it grapples with the police shooting of an unarmed West African immigrant, and how best to respond.

Members of the New York Board of Rabbis were to take part in an interfaith delegation to discuss perceptions about police conduct in minority communities. While outside, some dozen progressive rabbis planned to join in the now daily civil disobedience protests at One Police Plaza as a grand jury contemplates whether to charge the four officers who fired 41 bullets at Amadou Diallo in front of his Bronx apartment building last month.

Jewish individuals and groups are increasingly compelled to wade into a case that has gripped the city, although it has no direct consequence for Jews. The American Jewish Committee held a press conference last week calling for a "comprehensive package" of measures by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir to reassure the public, particularly minorities, against police brutality.

"[Giuliani’s] zero tolerance for crime must be matched by an equal public commitment to zero tolerance for police abuse and misuse of authority," said Susan Denbo Jaffe, the local AJCommittee president, joined by representatives of the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League and several black politicians.

She called on Giuliani to "assure all New Yorkers that they will be safe and free from police insensitivity, disrespect and abuse."

The higher profile comes as Jews appear deeply divided over the mayor’s handling of the Diallo controversy. A recent Marist College poll showed that only 37 percent of Jews approve of the mayor’s handling of the shooting, while 38 percent disapprove, with the remainder undecided.

The same poll showed the mayor’s job approval rating dropping among all New York City groups, including Jews, 64 percent of whom responded that Giuliani is doing a "good" or "excellent" job. In a Marist poll shortly before the 1997 election, he commanded a 76 percent approval rating by Jews.

Some Jewish leaders believe the mayor has not communicated sufficient empathy to concerns about police misconduct.

"The mayor should express his willingness to listen and to be part of the solution … to problems people are telling him about," said Diane Steinman, director of the New York Region of AJCommittee. "To date I have not seen him come forward, and I think that’s unfortunate."

In the weeks since the shooting, Jewish organizations and individuals have been wrestling with how best to address the incident. The 62 organizations that comprise the Jewish Community Relations Council have not been able to reach a consensus, although the agency’s staff has been communicating their concerns to black leaders and city officials.

Some leaders within the umbrella group feel it is premature to speak out on the case while state and federal investigations are ongoing. Others are put off by the central involvement of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has a stormy history with the Jewish community, and the ubiquitous chants and placards by protesters likening Giuliani to Adolf Hitler.

"Some of the people are using this as an opportunity to hit on Giuliani and Safir," says ADL national director Abraham Foxman. "[Police brutality] is an issue that is national in scope, not local. If a segment of our society begins losing respect for or comfort in [the police], that’s a very serious problem. Hitting on Giuliani and Safir distracts from it."

There is a growing perception, however, that Jewish leaders are keeping their hands off the issue simply because it doesn’t affect them.

"Clearly the leadership has decided that it doesn’t want to jump on this bandwagon," said John Mollenkopf, a political science professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center in Manhattan. "I think people feel it’s not their issue."

Some black leaders have gently noted that the Jewish community can use more of its influence to press for change in police procedure. At a Jewish breakfast last month, Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel called on leaders to place "unlawful attacks" by the police on their agendas. And this week a black City Council member called for an end to Jewish "silence."

"We came this far through the civil-rights struggle with the help of the Jewish community," said Una Clark, a Democrat who represents East Flatbush, Brooklyn. "In all our struggles, we have always seen Jews as allies. This silence is not the best thing."

That sentiment was echoed by a handful of Jews among the pickets outside One Police Plaza Monday.

"There should be more Jewish people out here," said Marsha Rapoport, a Manhattan resident who declined to give other details about herself. "People are crying, people are in pain."

When the AJCommittee decided to weigh in on the controversy last week, however, they chose a respectful press conference on the steps of City Hall, rather than joining the raucous anti-Giuliani protests across the street, where picketers called for the mayor’s arrest.

But there has not been an absence of Jews willing to side with the protesters. On Wednesday, a group of rabbis and other activists were to join in the civil disobedience arrests, following the lead of Rangel, former Mayor David Dinkins, state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger and others. Wednesday’s protest was organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, whose office answering machine this week was instructing potential arrestees on what to bring with them and warning that non-citizens may face larger legal problems.

"Our history with state violence should teach us to be concerned," said Cindy Greenberg, an organizer with JFREJ. "There is concern among some African-American leaders that there has not been enough leadership in the Jewish community on police brutality. We hope this open call [for arrests] will bring forth people that have not previously been making their voices heard."

But at the pickets Monday, Sharpton seemed to have no beef with the Jewish involvement.

"We’ve had some rabbis going to jail with us, and Abe Foxman was at the press conference in Washington, so I’ve seen every community involved," he said, speaking over the sound of picketers counting to 41, the number of shots fired at Diallo.

The press conference he referred to called on Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate police brutality across the nation.

But even as Jewish involvement grows, the community’s most vocal and politically active segment (Orthodox Jews) seems to be largely steering clear. While Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind organized one protest, joined by rabbis, and Riverdale Rabbi Avi Weiss visited the Diallo Family, some others claim much of the black community did not raise its voice when Yankel Rosenbaum was killed during the Crown Heights riots of 1991. The Diallo case, they feel, has drawn more outrage.

"What really puzzles me is, why didn’t Mark Green ask for the resignation of Lee Brown?" asks Isaac Abraham, a Satmar chasidic activist and spokesman, referring to the police commissioner during the riots. "Then it was not only four cops but the entire department."

Green, the city’s public advocate who was consumer affairs commissioner in 1991, has called for Safir’s resignation over the Diallo case.

"I didn’t see any of these people who say we need justice say ‘justice for Yankel Rosenbaum,’" said Abraham.

Conversely, Steinman of the AJCommittee said her group was prompted by concern that Jews are too quiet on the Diallo case.

"One of my lay leaders was very concerned that the only voices we were hearing … were leaders of the community having negative experiences with the Police Department," she said. "We didn’t like the fact that it looked like a tale of two cities."

Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, in a meeting with Safir Wednesday said he planned to discuss steps taken by the commissioner to address the perception that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be targeted by police. Rabbi Schneier was to be joined in the Safir meeting by representatives of the Protestant Coordinating Council of Churches, the New York Archdiocese and the Greek Orthodox Council

"Jewish New Yorkers have been awakened to the concerns expressed by African Americans and Latinos," said the rabbi.

"Those of us in the Jewish community need to understand this fear, and we also need to look through the eyes of the African-American community and be sensitive to their history of being victims of police brutality in the United States," he said. ‘At the same time, we can’t condemn the entire Police Department."

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